The Great Divergence, by Kenneth Pomeranz

Kenneth Pomeranz is a professor of history at the University of California, Irvine. He received a PhD from Yale in 1988. Wikipedia in 2009 describes China and its economy as the focus of most of his research. The Great Divergence was published by Princeton University Press the year that Pomeranz turned forty-two.

Pomeranz is described as seeking to explain how Western European Societies made the leap into industrialization and world domination and as arguing that the slight edge in technological development does not alone explain Europe's economic rise relative to China's economic advance. Pomeranz is described as offering a multi-causal explanation.

Reading the first chapter, a few questions come to my mind. So what if China grew rice and ate less meat than did Western Europeans and lived in different kinds of dwellings and had a different architecture, or whatever? A big question is why were Europeans able to impose themselves onto the Chinese in the 1800s? Why in the fourth century were nomadic tribesmen able to take over China as far south as the Yanzi River? The success of the tribesmen had nothing to do with their economic superiority. It was China that had been superior economically and in the size of its population. Why did China fail to develop artillery capable of taking on Western gun boats? To understand why China did not become a great trading and imperial power we need to go back to the 1400s, and such a study has more interest for me than the many points that Pomeranz discusses in his Great Divergence,however much his observations have merit as individual points.

Pomeranz does okay questioning various claims, including the claim that Western Europe had an advantage in capital stock. Pomeranz dismisses the significance of European families accumulating "a critical advantage in physical capital" or being "freer of Malthusian pressures."

History of the world is a great drama of choices. Western Europeans looked across oceans of water and saw opportunity. So did Japanese fishermen who became pirates. American Indians who looked across the Atlantic or Pacific oceans did not see opportunity. They were getting by with their hunting and planting and of course were not about to invent things that had nothing to do with their way of living. There are some Westerners who look upon the West's technological developments and their exercise of power with a sense of triumph, but Pomeranz' attempt to explain the divergence suggests no innate superiority among Westerners. Happenstance had to be involved, and some of that happenstance was geographical, but not all of it. In that happenstance was great drama that is not in The Great Divergence.

Pomeranz writes of unconvincing claims that western Europe grew faster economically "because it had the most efficient markets for goods and for factors of production." He adds that into the nineteenth century western Europe's farmland was far harder to buy or sell than that of China. "Unemployment and under employment were chronic problems in much of the sixteenth through the eighteenth centuries in Europe." He writes that in China the monarchy "was very concerned to make sure that local marketplaces had multiple competing buyers and sellers for basic items," and moreover, "Chinese peasants were considerably freer than many of their European counterparts to engage in commercial handicraft production and to sell these manufactures to competing buyers. These are pieces of his conclusion that institutions in western Europe did not make for an economic advantage over China. "Furthermore," he writes, "there is no reason to think that these patterns of development were leading 'naturally' to an industrial breakthrough anywhere."

Part Two of his book is titled, "From New Ethos to New Economy? Consumption, Investment, and Capitalism." His conclusion to Part Two is: "It would appear, then, that as late as the mid-eighteenth century, Western Europe was not uniquely productive or economically efficient."

Part Three is titled, "Beyond Smith and Malthus: From Ecological Constraints to Sustained Industrial Growth." A lot of Economic textbooks are easier to read. This is not narrative.

So why did Europe leap ahead of East Asia? I couldn't find an answer from Pomeranz. It's a question a professor of economics at the University of California at Davis, Gregory Clark, would try to answer in his book A Farewell to Alms, published in 2007.